Herbal Hacks, Part 2: Crafts, Health, and Beauty

From the calming characteristics of lavender to the practice of pressing plants, our readers find all sorts of ways to add a bit of herbiness to their crafty arts and relaxing rituals. Please enjoy our next installment of reader-submitted herbal hacks–herbs for crafts, health, and beauty.

four-assorted-color-petal-flowers_Columbine flowers via Pikrepo

I place a little crystal bowl of lavender buds on my bedside table. It helps me relax and get a good night’s sleep. – Janice Cox

Spray your pillow at night with lavender water for a relaxing sleep. – Kim Labash

If you are unfortunate enough to have an allergic reaction to poison ivy while working in your yard, did you know that jewelweed can help with the itchiness? It usually grows nearby. Just break off a stalk and rub the liquid onto the rash. – Janice Waite

DSC03233I love pressing herbs and flowers in a phone book or microwave press. I use the flowers for cards, bookmarks, etc. – Marilyn Roberts Rhinehalt

Before embroidering, wash your hands with lavender and lemon verbena soap–it keeps you calm and lends a lovely aroma to the work. – Kim Labash

Calming herbs such as calendula, parsley, and lavender make wonderful facial masks. Simply mix a tablespoon of natural clay with a teaspoon of fresh leaves or flowers, then add enough water to form a creamy mixture. – Janice Cox

Use a cloth on your lap when making lavender wands, and then gather the dropped heads and use for sachet making. – Kim Labash

On hot, humid days in the garden, when not a breath of air is stirring and the gnats insist on flinging themselves into your face, tuck several sprigs of southernwood (bruised to release the essential oils) into your headband or under your hat brim. It smells lovely and keeps the gnats at bay. – Kathleen McGowan

20201129_101632Buy a pair of rose bead earrings from the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America–the smell will waft around your head all day. ;) – Kim Labash

I love pressing herbs to make note cards. I print quotes on the front, package them with envelopes, and give as gifts! Everyone loves them! – Dianne Duperior

Light a “heady” smelling candle, such as gardenia, before you get into the bath for a soak–you won’t regret it. – Kim Labash

Photo Credits: 1) Columbines (Pikrepo); 2) Pressed flower luminaries (Erin Holden); 3) Lavender wand and rose bead earrings (Erin Holden)

My Adventures in Making Corn Husk Paper

By Angela Magnan

Corn husks for papermakingAfter watching a video online about making paper from corn husks, I thought it would be fun to try. I had never made paper before, but the video made it look easy. Don’t they always?! I first made some using the husks from six ears. After it didn’t really go well, I bought a book with more detail and tried again. 

But like many DIY projects that I try for the first time, or even the second, making paper out of corn husks reminded me that watching a video is no substitute for a detailed book, which in turn is no substitute for experience. It also reminded me that when trying something new, I should perhaps follow the directions. 

Corn husks and stalks are some of the many plant materials commonly found in home gardens that can be made into paper. Grass and leaf fibers are some of the easier materials to work with. Those who have more time on their hands venture into using bast fibers, the fibrous material in between the outer surface layer and the inner core of certain plants’ stems. Harvesting it involves peeling stems apart one by one and stripping out the bast fibers. Grass and leaf fibers only need to be picked and washed and sometimes cut into smaller pieces prior to processing. 

Corn husk pulpAll plant fibers need to be cooked for several hours in an alkali solution*, a mixture of water and soda ash, washing soda, wood ash lye, lime, or caustic soda (also called lye). Because the amount of alkali you add to the water is based on the dry weight of the plant material, you need to dry, weigh, and rehydrate your plant materials prior to adding to the pot. Cooking breaks down the fibers, and the alkali dissolves non-cellulose materials, like lignins and waxes, that can cause discoloration or prevent the fibers from freely separating. There are pros and cons to each type of alkali, but the trick to using any of them is that you need to balance out the strength of the alkali with the strength of the fibers. Too weak and you will be boiling your fiber for days; too strong and you will damage the fiber. 

Once the fibers pull apart easily, you can use a blender to turn them into pulp, or you can do it by hand using a flat surface and a bat, mallet, or meat tenderizer. 

Once the material is no longer stringy, you add it to a vat with some water and make the paper. This typically involves using a mould and deckle, which is a two-part frame with a screen that you dip into the vat. An alternative is to use a deckle box, which is a deep box on top of a screen that you pour the pulp into. Both of these serve to evenly distribute the pulp and keep it in the shape you want. 

Once the liquid has sufficiently drained back into the vat, a papermaker typically transfers the wet paper onto a wool felt or towel in a process called couching. Once much of the water is absorbed by the felt, the paper can then be pressed and dried.

On my first try, I cut the husks up into small pieces and then boiled them using washing soda as my alkali. Then, I used a blender to turn them into pulp. Everything was going as planned. But then? Because I was not sure if my first try would also be my last, I didn’t want to go through the trouble of mould and deckle, and boxbuying or making a mould and deckle and instead poured it through a screen. I ended up spreading it around with my fingers. When I tried to remove the paper from the screen, the pulp stuck to it and wouldn’t come off. Apparently, the screen needs to be wet before it comes into contact with the pulp, a detail I only learned later after I bought the book. And then instead of pressing it, I merely laid it out to dry. My result was lumpy paper with a lot of conkling, a term used by papermakers and watercolor artists for the wavy imperfections in dried paper.  

Because my brother had a field of corn he couldn’t sell this summer, I had plenty of free material to try again. So why not? I made a small mould and deckle from two round plastic containers, some foam, and a piece of an old window screen with the intention of making small paper circles that I could decorate with corn husk ribbons and string together like a garland. Then, after drying the husks from three dozen ears, which weighed about a pound, I rehydrated them in a five-gallon bucket. Because I have an endless supply of wood ashes from my woodstove, I decided to be overly ambitious and made my own wood ash lye, even though the book described it as unpredictable. The book also indicated that the amount of wood ash lye I made would be enough for one pound of dry fiber, but only half of my husks fit. I cooked that half in the wood ash lye for hours and hours, and they still didn’t break down sufficiently. When I tried to pulp it by hand, the fibers would not separate even after an hour of pounding. 

By putting the beaten fibers in a watery vat and swishing it around, also known as “hogging the vat,” I was able to get some good pulp to disperse into the water and pull out most of the bits that were still stringy. Even still, the tiniest remaining strings kept getting tangled in my homemade mould and deckle, so I became an expert at “kissing off,” the act of slapping your screen against the water surface to release the pulp so you can start over. In Finished Corn Husk Paperthe end, I removed the bottom from an old drawer, placed it over a window screen, and used that as a deckle box. Fortunately, I remembered to wet the screen first this time and was able to pour the good pulp through it, then couch, press, and dry it. I ended up with one 11 x 17 sheet of paper. To preserve my materials, I poured the rest of the stringy fibers through the screen and dried them as 2 sheets of lumpy “paper.” 

Despite my failures, I am determined to forge ahead. I may try cooking down my lumpy paper a bit more, and I still have half a pound of uncooked husks. And now, whenever I work in the garden, I can’t help but think, “Could I make paper from this plant? What about this one?”

Sources:

Hiebert, Helen. 1998. Papermaking with Plants. Pownal, VT: Storey Books.

“How to Make Paper from Corn.” Storm the Castle. www.stormthecastle.com/paper-making/how-to-make-paper-from-corn.htm

*Safety disclaimer: Alkali products can be dangerous. You should always wear gloves and goggles when handling any alkali, and you should have vinegar on hand to neutralize it in case of a spill or other accident. You also should not pour alkali solutions down the drain if you have a septic system.

Photo Credits: 1) Dried corn husks; 2) Partially beaten pulp; 3) Homemade mould and deckle and using a bottomless drawer as a deckle box; 4) The final product with the first try on the left and the second try on the right. All photos courtesy of the author.


Angela grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and has degrees in biochemistry, horticulture, and science writing. She now lives in Maryland and has worked in the Gardens Unit at the US National Arboretum since 2012.

Herbal Hacks, Part 1: Food and Drink

We asked and you delivered! Over the summer we asked folks to share how they used herbs to make their lives easier or more fun. We received many great responses, and want to thank everyone who contributed a little snippet of herbal how-to. We received so many responses, in fact, that we’ve decided to offer them in installments, categorized by topic for easy reference. Please enjoy this week’s selection – herbs in food and drink.

Violet banner_Creative Commons via Pxfuel

I love to use fresh herbs as drink garnishes and in ice cubes. Edible flowers and leaves enhance my beverages, from my morning smoothie to my afternoon glass of wine! – Janice Cox

Dried blue cornflower petals sprinkled over salads – or as a garnish on other foods – for a beautiful blue punch of color! Flowers are harvested each year from my garden at the end of a hot day, dried on white cotton tea towels on cookie sheets for two to three days before removing petals, then I hang the petals in mesh bags to finish drying for a week or more before putting them into clean, labeled jars to use throughout the year. – Becki Smith

I infuse sugar with herbs to punch and kick it up a notch or two when baking special treats. – Eliza G

In late fall I heavily prune back many of my herbs. After washing, I put them – stems included – in a large pot, cover with water, and make a strong herbal broth. I freeze it in two and four cup amounts to use as a base for soups through the winter. The two cup amounts can be mixed with chicken or beef broth if I want that flavor. – Terry Senko

Infusions! ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose’ (a Pelargonium) simple syrup for our margaritas, and lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora) infused into heavy cream for our homemade ice cream! – Lois Sutton

Colorful herb drinksA cool tip I learned my first season in Herb Society of America was how to make canned lemonade taste like fresh: add the juice of one lemon. How simple is that! I had success with other citrus as well. Add your favorite herb to make it chic. The first tip I learned from Madalene Hill was put an herb in the bottom of the cake pan to add complexity and surprise to your cake. The second was her mantra: “fat delivers flavor”. – Adrianne Kahn

A roll of goat cheese covered in fresh chopped thyme, with crackers on the side, makes for a quick appetizer tray to serve or to bring to a gathering. – Becki Smith

When the first snow is expected, I harvest my fresh garden herbs. I cut thyme, oregano, and basil fine, and put the mix in ice cube tray pockets. Then I pour olive oil (any oil would do) over the herbs, freeze, and package. When I need to oil a pan I add one or two. As the oil melts, the herbal fragrance smells of summer, and the taste is fresh herbs. – Lola Wilcox

When serving white pasta dishes, garnish with a chiffonade of purple ruffles basil – looks fabulous and tastes wonderful. Add borage to your Pimms cup – pretty colored flower and refreshing cucumber flavor. – Kim Labash

Tiny bits of finely minced anise hyssop can be added to sliced strawberries macerating with a bit of sugar, or to chunks of cantaloupe, or to almost any fruit to add an ethereal, spicy sweetness that transforms and elevates a simple fruit dessert. Pair it with a floral rosé wine and linger at the table with your guests on a soft summer night. – Kathleen McGowan

Water infused with herbs. – Linda Hogue

Borage and creamI grow herbs and vegetables. I also save onion peels, potato peels, carrot shavings, the hard bits of celery, etc. Instead of sending them directly to the compost, they go into a freezer bag. After I fill a one gallon bag, the veggie bits go into the crock pot along with fresh herbs, salt, and pepper, and one to two quarts of water (enough to cover the veggies). I slow cook this for about six hours, strain the broth, and put it into Mason or Ball quart or pint jars (within one inch of the top), and freeze it. Finally, all of the leftover veggie bits get to go back to the compost pile to feed the next round of herbs and vegetables. – Catherine O’Brien

I planted a beautiful bay laurel bush just outside my kitchen door so I can add fresh bay leaves to potatoes, soups and more by walking out the door, and to use for wreaths when I prune the bush. – Becki Smith

I like to put fresh herbs in ice cubes for drinks in summer. Some favorites are a borage flower in a cube for a gin and tonic, or lavender petals to chill my glass of Earl Grey tea! Cheers! – Cheryl Skibicki

Photo Credits: All photos from Pixabay

HSA Webinar: The Chakra System Displayed in a Garden

by Jen Munson, Education Chair

It’s accepted that good health can be found in nature, from the benefits of hands in the dirt to the reduction of stress from a walk in the woods. Another modality for good health is the chakra system. Chakra is Sanskrit for wheel or circle and references the wheels of energy located in the body. The chakra system is a network of energy channels that are mapped throughout the body. Although some may not ascribe to this way of thinking about the body, others embrace a life of learning and exploring this modality.

Join us on September 24th at 1pm EDT for our webinar titled, The Chakra System Displayed in a Garden. Herbalist and business owner Jane Hawley Stevens will be our guest presenter. At Jane’s award-winning organic farm, Four Elements Herbal, she created a garden that organizes plants according to the body systems. Her Chakra Garden has seven distinct areas with plants specific for each body system that help heal and rejuvenate. Learn about this eastern system of healing, the herbs, and the garden design that explains it.

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Visit  https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars or click here to sign up. Become a member today and enjoy all of our webinars for free, and as an added bonus, you’ll automatically be entered into a raffle for a free educational conference registration to our 2021 conference being held in Baton Rouge, LA, from April 29th to May 1st, 2021.

In preparation for our upcoming webinar, continue reading to become more familiar with the chakra system. There are seven primary chakras found along the spine starting at the perineum and moving straight up to the top of the head. Each chakra vibrates at a different energy level and reflects a different color and part of the body and its function.

First Chakra – Root – Located at the perineum, this chakra connects us to the earth and is associated with the color red. It entails the spinal column, kidneys, legs, and colon. Plants for this chakra include dandelion root, garlic, parsnips and other root-like herbs.

Second Chakra – Sacral – Located by the sacrum, it’s connected to pleasure and emotional balance. It’s represented by the color orange and is Chakra Image-page-001associated with the reproductive organs, prostate, and bladder. Herbs for this energy channel include calendula, sandalwood, vanilla, carob, fennel, and licorice.

Third Chakra – Navel – Located by the belly button, it is the center of our emotions, including willpower and assertion. With its yellow color it covers the pancreas, liver, and stomach. Plants to support this wheel include celery, rosemary, cinnamon, peppermint, spearmint, turmeric, cumin, and fennel.

Fourth Chakra – Heart – Located centrally near the heart, this chakra represents love, acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and intuitiveness. The color is green and the associated body systems are heart and the circulatory system. Plants for the fourth chakra include cayenne, lavender, marjoram, rose, basil, sage, and thyme. 

Fifth Chakra – Throat – Located at the throat, it entails communication, self expression, creativity, and truth. The color is blue and the organs associated with it are the thyroid, hypothalamus, throat, and mouth. Plants for this chakra include lemon balm, red clover, eucalyptus, peppermint, sage, salt, and lemongrass.

Sixth Chakra – Third Eye – Located in the center of the brain, this chakra represents wisdom, intuition, and analytical abilities. The color is a deep purple and the associated organs are the pineal gland, nose, ears, and pituitary gland. Herbs to support this energy wheel include mint, jasmine, eyebright, juniper, mugwort, poppy, and rosemary. 

Seventh Chakra – Crown – This chakra is found just above the crown of the head and connects us to divine energy. Its color is light purple, indigo blue, or white. No organs are associated with this energy wheel, and herbs that support this energy center include lavender and lotus flowers.

Photo Credits: 1) Sacred lotus, Nelumbo nucifera (Erin Holden); 2) Chakra system


jane hawley stevensJane Hawley Stevens has been working with herbs, from starting seeds to creating herbal wellness, since 1981. Jane and her husband, David, own and operate a 130-acre certified organic farm in Baraboo Bluffs, Wisconsin. Just this year, Jane and David were named the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) 2020 Organic Farmers of the Year! 

Their farm is also home to Four Elements Organic Herbals. Their property is composed of cultivated fields, prairie, and woodland. Jane believes that healing comes from nature, so dedicates her power to nurturing healing herbs, both cultivated and wild. These are hand harvested at peak potency to create her unique line of remedies. In this rural setting, Jane has contributed her message of honoring nature to schools, civic groups, and through Four Elements’ Annual Open House over the past 30 plus years.

HSA Webinar: How to Grow and Use Lavender for Health and Beauty

By Jen Munson, Education Chair

A program I attended a few years back labeled basil the “King of Herbs,” but in my world, lavender is the true king. From its medicinal benefits to its culinary and craft uses, lavender can’t be beat. The fresh clean scent of lavender has been used in cosmetics and skin care products since ancient times. It smells good, improves circulation, attracts pollinators, and promotes sleep. With over twenty five different varieties, there is likely a lavender variety you can grow not only for its beauty, but for its many uses. 

Join us for our webinar on July 21st at 1pm EST with author Janice Cox when she presents “How to Grow and Use Lavender for Health and Beauty.” Learn how to start a new plant from cuttings, air-dry flowers for year round use, and create your own DIY body care products that can be used for hair care, skin care, and in the bath. Tips, recipes, and herbal craft ideas will be shared throughout this dynamic webinar.  

As an additional bonus, HSA Members can receive 20% off, plus free shipping, on Janice’s latest book, Beautiful Lavender (Ogden 2020). This book is filled with lavender recipes and ideas. Log into the member only area of the HSA website to obtain the code, then go to Janice’s website at http://www.naturabeautyathome.com to order the book. The book retails for $17.99, but for HSA members, it is $14.39 + free shipping!

Our webinars are free to members and $5.00 for guests. Visit https://www.herbsociety.org/hsa-learn/hsa-webinars or click here to sign up. Become a member today, and enjoy all of our webinars for free, and as an added bonus, you’ll automatically be entered into a raffle for a free educational conference registration to our 2021 conference being held in Baton Rouge, LA, from April 29th – May 1st, 2021.

About Janice Cox

Janice Cox is an expert on the topic of natural beauty and making your own cosmetic products with simple kitchen and garden ingredients. She is the author of three best-selling books on the topic: Natural Beauty at Home, Natural Beauty for All Seasons, and Natural Beauty from the Garden. She is currently the beauty editor for Herb Quarterly Magazine, is a member of the editorial advisory board for Mother Earth Living Magazine, and is a member of The Herb Society of America, International Herb Association, United States Lavender Growers Association, Oregon Lavender Association, and Garden Communicators International. 

Edible Flowers from Culinary Herbs

By Peggy Riccio

Edible flowers with deviled eggs
Deviled eggs with edible herbal flowers (Photo courtesy of Susan Belsinger)

During this time of “unintentional pausing” I have been diving even deeper into the world of herbs. I am growing a wider variety of herbs, watching herbal webinars and cooking demonstrations, and experimenting in the kitchen. Recently, I learned that flowers from culinary herbs are edible. “Edible” in this case simply means one can eat them — not that they are necessarily “tasty.” However, because the flowers are edible, regardless of their taste, they can be used for botanical color and decoration. Think of a painter’s palette with each paint symbolizing a culinary herb in your garden. Think of how that flower can add color and interest to your meals and beverages. Imagine how the flower would look whole, separated, or even minced. The following are great for adding botanical color.

Calendula with egg salad
Pot marigold flowers with egg salad

I love the bright orange/yellow color of pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) flowers. The best thing about them is that they can be used whole, separated, or minced and fresh or dried. I garnish pound cakes by placing a few orange flower heads on the side on a blue platter, and I sprinkle the petals on the white frosting of an angel food cake. For contrast, I sprinkle the gold petals on green beans or broccoli. The petals can add orange color to biscuits, banana bread, butter, cream cheese, egg salad, egg dishes, and rice dishes. If you mince the petals with a knife, you can make orange confetti. You can also combine this with colors of other edible flowers to decorate anything from fruit salad to cupcakes.

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) flowers are bright red with a funnel shape. The entire flower, or coarsely chopped flowers, can add a splash of red to a fruit salad. The entire flower can float in a clear cocktail or lemonade. Coarsely chopped flowers can add red color to butter, condiments, and sauces or to a chicken, seafood, or fish dish at the end of the cooking period.

Borage (Borago officinalis) flowers have a striking blue flower head — a singular flower adds beauty to a cupcake. Each flower head can be encased in an ice cube for a drink or just float the flower in a cocktail. Separated, the petals can add sky blue to fruit salads, yogurt-based dips, or any baked item. These are also good for topping off appetizers or garnishing a cake.

Tomato soup with cilantro

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), dill (Anethum graveolens), and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) have small white or yellow flowers. These are best used as a garnish, like sprinkling on soups, green salads, and main entrees. They can be added to an appetizer or deviled eggs. Usually they are used for savory dishes or pickling, not desserts and drinks.

Shrimp with rosemary
Shrimp with rosemary

Purple rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and sage (Salvia spp.) flowers are great for adding color and interest because guests will never expect them. The rosemary flowers are smaller than sage flowers but both can be used for the same type of dishes. I add them to seafood, shrimp scampi, pasta, green salad, potatoes, and green vegetables. They can also be used for cocktails and mulled wine. Sage and rosemary flowers pair well with melon, cut up fresh oranges, or poached pears.

Of course, there are many herb flowers with both flavor and color. Lavender (Lavandula spp.), chives (Allium spp.), and basil (Ocimum basilicum) are classic examples. These can be used as well, but knowing that all culinary herbs have edible flowers expands your palette of what you can use in your meals and beverages. To get you started, write down the culinary herbs you have in the garden and post this paper on the inside of your kitchen cupboard. When you are cooking or baking, you can open the cupboard and look at your list to remember what you can pick to add color and interest to your dish.


A horticulturist in Virginia, Peggy Riccio’s website, pegplant.com, is an online resource for gardeners in the Washington, DC metro area. Currently, she is the chair of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America.

Share Your Herbal Tricks!

ElectopediaDo you have little herbal tricks you use to jazz up your life? If so, we want to know about them! We’re looking for quick, 1-2 sentence ideas of easy herbal “hacks” to share on the blog. Tips can range from crafting to pest prevention to household cleaning – whatever little ways herbs make your life easier or more fun. Send your ideas to herbsocietyblog@gmail.com and we’ll combine and share them in a single post. Your name will appear with the ideas you submit.  Inquiring minds want to know! 

Do you follow the HSA blog? Check it out here: https://herbsocietyblog.wordpress.com/

-Erin and Chrissy, Blogmasters